Sam and John argued over how baptism should be done. Sam held out for immersion. He said the person must be dunked all the way under the water. John argued that any method of applying the water was OK as long as it was a Christian baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
John said: “So you would say that the water has to cover you even up to the ankles to make the baptism valid?”
Sam: “Of course.”
John: Would you say that the water has to come past the waist?”
John: “As far as the neck?” Sam: “Yup!”
John: “In other words, you think it should cover the very top of the head!” Sam: “Sure! That’s the most important part!”
John: “Good! That’s the part we baptize – the top of the head!”
It’s no secret that some denominations insist on immersion as the only legitimate way to baptize. The Scriptures do not specify. The word for “baptize” (baptizo – βαπτιζω) in the original Greek language of the New Testament is used in different ways. In today’s sermon text from Luke 11:38, the Pharisee noticed “that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.” The word is literally “baptize.” In this case it refers to a Jewish ceremonial washing. The word could hardly mean that the Pharisee expected Jesus to immerse Himself before lunch. In Mark 7:3-4 the word is used for “the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles and dining couches.” It is not likely that the Jews dragged their couches down to the river to immerse them. The meaning of “baptize” – or any other word – is determined by how it is used.
It is true, as Martin Luther also said, that immersion matches the imagery of being “buried with Christ through Baptism into death” (Romans 6). That is a beautiful picture. But “baptism” with the Holy Spirit is also pictured in the Bible as a “pouring out.” It is true that both Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch “went down into the water” and then “came up out of the water,” and that Jesus, at His baptism, “went up out of the water.” These could be cases of immersion, or they may have stood in the water while the water was poured over the head. If one wishes to insist on immersion, then one must remember that BOTH Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water. Does this mean that the preacher has to get dunked each time too? When 3,000 were baptized on Pentecost in Jerusalem, it is not likely they were all immersed. When the jailer and his family were baptized in the middle of the night at the jailer’s home (Acts 16), was this immersion? Probably not.
Immersion is not wrong. Neither is it necessary! Sadly, those who insist on immersion are most often those who do not understand the benefits of Baptism – that it is not something we do, but something Christ does for us. It is an expression of the gospel, not of the law. Such groups also generally reject infant baptism although the Bible says that this promise is for us AND for our children. We need not fret over the “how.” We need to believe the “what” of Holy Baptism – that by water and the Word God makes us His own.